‘A few trifles’ is a quote from the stage drama Little Women, and the food you see here is what I made for the show, which is going on all this month in Holmdel, NJ. As prop goddess, it’s my job to rent, buy or make (not to mention schlep, maintain and track down from actors) everything that’s brought on and off stage. I often have to provide real (what we call ‘practical’) food for shows that call for actors to eat on stage. But the director for this production decided all of the Christmas Day treats that old Mr. Laurence next door sends over to the March family will be impractical—just for looks. I’m a stickler for authenticity on stage, and the theatre space is small, with the audience just feet away from the onstage action, so this took some doing.
The script describes the spread: chocolates, ice cream, fruitcake and cream puffs. I thought about buying most of it and polyurethaning the crap out of it so it would last the run of the show (and so the actors and mice wouldn’t eat it).* But I couldn’t find puffs that weren’t already filled with cream (which would spoil); fruitcake is tough to find in April; and ice cream wouldn’t survive beyond Act I Scene I.
Plan B, which I went with, was to make a bunch of homemade play dough and form it the way I do marzipan. Click on the photos to take a better look. This is my first go with shaping play dough for stage. Everything pictured here, except for the holly sprig on the cake, is made of play dough.
To make it: I combined 3 cups flour, 1.5 cups salt, and 6 teaspoons cream of tartar in one bowl and 3 cups water and 1/3 cup cooking oil in another. You can also add food coloring to the liquid. Then I added dry and liquid together and poured it into a heavy-bottomed pan over medium low heat. I stirred frequently until the mixture got thick and rubbery and lost its sheen. Then I took it off the heat to cool. Once it is, you can shape it into anything you want. Here’s what I did.
For the chocolates in the top tier of the epergne above: I shaped quarter-sized balls, flattened them, and let them dry out for a few days. Then I painted them with brown acrylic** paint and let that dry. I topped them with white acrylic paint in peaks, as if it were buttercream. Once that was dry, I covered them with polyurethane.
For the cream puffs: I shaped balls about 2″ in diameter and topped them with balls about 1″ in diameter, which looks very much the way choux pastry looks when piped, before it’s baked. Then I brushed on acrylic wood polish with a very light hand—just so they’d look slightly browned—and poly’ed them. Since the play dough wasn’t dried out beforehand, when I poly’ed them they cracked a bit. It makes them look like authentic puffs.
For the fruitcake, shown above (sliced) and below: I wanted to model it after Traditional English Fruitcake, which I imagined was a holiday favorite of Mr. Laurence, and one he wanted to share with his neighbors. First I kneaded in edible brown gel paste from my candy supply basket. But once it dried, it turned a disagreeable, asteroidlike shade of brownish green. On went the brown paint and then poly, the latter of which gave the cake an appealing gloss that made it look moist, buttery and alcohol soaked. I sliced it with a serrated knife.
I made a real fruitcake last Christmas, and iced and decorated it in the style of the south of England. For this one, I decorated it in the northern style—very simply, with bits of play dough shaped to suggest sliced almonds, lightly wood stained so they’d look toasted, and I scattered them around the edges. A sprig of holly was inserted into the middle, and I replace it with a fresh one each weekend.
For the ice cream: The show takes place in New England in the 1860s, before vanilla was the common flavoring it is today. Lemon was common, though. Let’s call the below lemon.
To give it a realistic effect, I used an ice cream scooper to scoop the soft play dough into the bowl. I chose a silver one which had a frosted-over look, suggesting the ice cream was creating condensation on the outside of the bowl. Then, while still soft, I covered it with lots of poly. Like the puffs, this made it crack a bit on top and gave it a subtly iced-over look, and the extra poly made it appear slick and slightly melting.
*Bit of an editorial there, especially the choice to put actors before mice; actors show far less discretion. When I propped Chekov’s Three Sisters in college, I had to provide a huge platter of impractical pastries for one scene. I bought real ones, and the actors nibbled at it like stoners until I was forced to shellac it. Even then I still needed to post a sign telling them to keep their sticky paws off it. Though I quite, QUITE relished hearing the occasional ‘Bleah! Goddammit!’ from actors who either weren’t literate or thought the sign was a joke.
**This is latex, or water-based paint—my favorite. Oil-based paint is nice and shiny, but it takes longer to dry, is more of a hassle because you need to buy turpentine, a solvent, to clean your paintbrush, and until it dries your house smells like a Sunoco station.